It’s a commonly repeated mantra that native English speakers don’t need to bother with other languages – because everyone already speaks ours. Anyone who knows anything about language will tell you exactly how misleading that saying is.
But sadly it seems that the false mantra is pervasive in our national psyche. Some estimates put the bilingual population of the UK as low as five per cent, with even the majority of those being people who have grown up bilingual. The fact is the UK and indeed most English-speaking countries are perfectly happy for the rest of the world to learn our language, but we don’t have all that much interest in returning the favour.
It is becoming increasingly apparent, however, just how unsustainable this attitude is, both culturally and economically. In a report by the British Chambers of Commerce, this lack of ability to communicate with people in foreign markets is frequently cited as a barrier: “Almost half of businesses claim that language barriers influence whether, when and where to enter international markets.”
But there are thousands of languages around the world. So how do we know where to put our time and effort? Read on for an insight into the languages of the future.
How far will English take you?
While English remains the global lingua franca, even the highest estimates would mean only about 20 per cent of the global population speaks English. And a lot of these people are concentrated in small geographical areas. In fact, of the 20 countries that Education First identified as having ‘high’ or ‘very high’ English comprehension skills, only five were situated outside of Europe.
A quick look at the statistics tells you that if you want to establish your brand in overseas economies, there’s only so far English will take you. But if you want to get the maximum potential from your overseas expansion strategy, you need to know which countries, economies, and therefore languages are going to emerge as future leaders.
If you’re considering expanding into overseas economies, you’ll no doubt be assessing which of those economies show the most promise. It likely won’t surprise you to hear who the big economies are: China, the US and the European Union. But it may surprise you to learn just how quickly this is changing.
A look over the change in projected GDP of the world’s 10 biggest economies paints a stark picture. The US, Germany, the UK and France are all projected to fall in global GDP rankings from 2010 to 2020, with countries like China, India, Brazil and Mexico edging their way up.
If you’re looking for the countries that show the greatest promise in the coming years, you’re very quickly going to have to start looking outside Europe and the Anglosphere.
Who are we trading with?
You’d have thought that this would mean the UK would be falling over itself to trade with these emerging economies. But a look at our top export partners paints a very different picture. Only one of these four countries, China, appears in the list of our top 15 export partners, and even that is only seventh on the list. Only two non-European countries appear in the top 10 – the US and China.
In short, the biggest trading opportunities are opening up in countries without reliable English skills, and our inability to communicate is inhibiting any chance we have of making the most of these opportunities.
This means that you need to be proactive. It’s not good enough to expect potential clients and buyers to know your language – you need to go out and talk to them in theirs.
Which languages are most important?
A British Council report came up with a list of the 10 most important languages for people in the UK to be able to communicate in. A number of factors were taken into account in this ranking, including the relevant country’s economy, our current trade with them and how many people in that country already speak English:
The languages of most interest in that list are those pertaining to the emerging economies, principally Spanish, Mandarin and Portuguese. The percentage of Brits who understand these languages is predictably low, at four per cent, one per cent and one per cent, respectively.
Language translation services
The fact that comparatively little trade is accomplished between the UK and emerging economies presents a significant opportunity for companies looking to get ahead in global business. In essence, these markets are lucrative and still largely untapped. For businesses who want to make the most of these new markets, it is vital to be able to communicate with potential customers in their own language.
If your business is planning on expanding overseas, translation services from the team at Bubbles can help. With over 280 language translation services available, we can help you find your niche anywhere in the world. Contact us to find out more.